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Friday, July 10, 2015

Thoughts About Kobe Bryant's February 2015 Interview With Ahmad Rashad

"I'm not afraid of change."—Kobe Bryant

Those words, spoken near the end of Kobe Bryant's February 2015 interview with Ahmad Rashad, embody who Kobe Bryant is. He was not afraid to jump from high school to the NBA. He was not afraid to challenge coaches, teammates and opponents. He was not afraid to try to win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal. He was not afraid when he suffered injuries during his prime that would have made other players miss games. He was not afraid when he suffered injuries near the end of his career that would have made other players give up and retire. In fact, Bryant says that there is "beauty" in looking at his physical mortality, both in terms of trying to put it off as long as possible and also in terms of planning for what he will do next when his playing career is over.

Rashad asked Bryant if Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were friends and Bryant replied, "No." The reason that the two superstars were not friends when they were teammates is that they had different approaches to the game. Bryant focused on working hard and perfecting his technique. He modeled himself after Michael Jordan and other perfectionistic workaholics. O'Neal wanted to do things his own way, which meant playing hard but not necessarily focusing on details in terms of practice, staying in shape and improving his technique. Neither player would back down. Bryant described how O'Neal would demand the ball and Bryant would reply, quite reasonably, "If you work, then I will give you the ball. If you don't work, I won't give you the ball." Some people say that Bryant broke up the O'Neal-Bryant tandem but I would say that Bryant's work ethic drove that tandem to three championships and four Finals appearances. Note that O'Neal won exactly one title without Bryant despite playing alongside (at various times) Penny Hardaway, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Steve Nash.

The Bryant-O'Neal relationship is interesting to revisit now, more than a decade after O'Neal left L.A., as some commentators assert that Bryant is a big man killer and that free agents are avoiding the Lakers because of Bryant's large presence. The idea of Bryant as a big man killer is ludicrous and easily refuted, because every big man he regularly played with had his greatest individual and team success as Bryant's teammate. O'Neal won an MVP and three championships with Bryant. Chris Mihm averaged career-highs in points, rebounds and field goal percentage during the two seasons when he was the Lakers' primary starting center. Kwame Brown averaged career highs in field goal percentage and blocked shots while playing alongside Bryant. Andrew Bynum blossomed into an All-Star (before injuries derailed his career) in no small part due to Bryant's tutelage. Pau Gasol went from being a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 playoff record in his pre-Bryant years to being a two-time champion and perennial All-Star after joining forces with Bryant.

Bryant's track record with big men is above reproach in the area that matters most: results.

So why did free agents not flock to the Lakers this summer? The Lakers' management situation is a mess, starting with running off Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson and then continuing with several other blunders. The San Antonio Spurs are clearly a better fit for prize free agent LaMarcus Aldridge than the Lakers due to the Spurs' stability and talent level. Also, Bryant is now an older player whose health is suspect.

During the interview, Bryant discussed how he embraced the challenge of winning a championship without O'Neal. Bryant felt that O'Neal knew that Bryant could do it because O'Neal had seen how hard Bryant worked every day. Bryant considered it disrespectful that anyone would classify him as just a sidekick and he is puzzled by the people who say that it is important to be selfless and then criticize him for sublimating his game to win three titles with O'Neal.

Bryant told Rashad that leaders do not sit around the camp fire singing kumbaya. Leadership can be uncomfortable and lonely for the leader. If someone has food in their teeth, then a leader tells him even if it is momentarily uncomfortable. That puts the onus on the other person to remove the food or look like a fool. Bryant added that if you are not that kind of leader then you will face a team that has that kind of leader and you will lose.

Bryant and Phil Jackson had a bumpy relationship at times; it could be argued that some of Jackson's public comments (perhaps intended to motivate Bryant and/or mollify O'Neal) betrayed Bryant but Bryant proved to be the bigger man by forgiving Jackson and winning two more championships with him. Bryant appreciates how Jackson helped him to elevate his game. Bryant said that he thought about basketball tactically before working with Jackson but Jackson taught him how to approach the game spiritually.

Bryant said that he should have seven championship rings instead of five, but he is grateful for the career he has had. The Lakers' loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals is the most painful defeat for Bryant. The 2005-07 period (also known as the Kwame/Smush wildnerness years, when Bryant pushed, pulled and dragged the Lakers to the playoffs with a starting center and starting point guard who could not have started for any other team in the league, let alone a playoff team) was enormously frustrating for Bryant but he had "strategic patience" because he believed that he would have another chance to win a championship. When the pieces were in place for the Lakers to contend, he pushed himself and those players harder than ever. Bryant declared that winning does not curb passion/work ethic but ramps it up because once you win you do not want anyone else to take that feeling away from you and have it for themselves.

Bryant told Rashad that Russell Westbrook is the current player who most reminds him of himself.

Listening to Bryant talk about his career and remembering how hard Bryant worked to perfect his craft, one realizes that it is not entirely or even mostly accidental that some great players accumulate multiple championships while others accumulate multiple excuses for not quite getting the job done. Has a Kobe Bryant team ever failed to live up to its potential? LeBron James, Steve Nash and Chris Paul are lauded for supposedly being more efficient than Bryant and for supposedly being better teammates yet between the three of them they have just two championship rings--both of them earned by James when he finally accepted the responsibility to push himself and his teammates instead of being passive and making excuses. Nash and Paul have played with many very talented teammates and failed to even reach the NBA Finals. There is something fundamentally flawed about the way many media members define concepts like leadership, teamwork and success. Is it better to act the way media members think that a leader should act or to actually lead men into battle and emerge victorious? Is it better to do things that media members perceive as being team-oriented or to actually win five championships?

The 2008 Team USA squad that won the Olympic gold medal revealed a lot about Bryant, James and Paul. James and Paul played very well but when the outcome of the championship game versus Spain was in the balance Bryant lifted Team USA over the top, putting an end to a string of embarrassing USA failures in FIBA play. Bryant set the defensive tone for the team, providing the critical element that had been missing in previous years. The Team USA coaching staff and players had no doubt who the real leader of the team was and at least two media members realized that Bryant was the difference, despite so many efforts to market James as the face of the team and Paul as supposedly the best leader in the sport.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:39 AM

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